Most schools hold recess after lunch, but simply switching this order resulted in more grade school children eating more fruits and vegetables at mid-day, which could help them stay fuller longer and better focus on the task of learning, according to researchers Joseph Price, Brigham Young University, and David Just, Cornell University.
Specifically, they found that the first through sixth graders at three schools in Orem, Utah, that switched recess to before lunch ate 54% more fruits and vegetables than the students at four schools in the same district that held lunch before recess.
In addition, 45% more children who played before eating ate at least one serving of fruits or vegetables compared to those who ate before they could play.
“In contrast, the schools in our control group actually experienced a small reduction in fruit and vegetable consumption” during the four days in the spring of 2011 and the nine days in the fall of 2011 when Price and Young measured the number of children who ate at least one serving of fruit or vegetables, how many servings they ate and how many they threw away, according to the study.
The researchers hypothesize the minor, inexpensive change in the order of recess and lunch is successful in part because it helps children “relax during lunch and take more time to eat their fill of nutritious food instead of anxiously rushing through lunch to get more playing time,” according to the study, which notes many schools that serve lunch before recess allow children to play as soon as they “finish” eating. This incentivizes students who value recess to eat more quickly and potentially eat less in order to have more time to play, the researchers add.
Playing before lunch also helps increase children’s appetites, making fruits and vegetables more appealing, the authors hypothesize.
The findings came at a time when schools and policy makers are trying to improve the amount and quality of food children receive from the National School Lunch Program. Other research has linked increased access to high quality food at schools to better attendance and behavior, although results are mixed as to whether access to long-term, healthy foods can help students score higher on standardized tests. (Read more HERE.)
Reduced food waste
Switching recess before lunch also translates to about a 40% reduction in food waste, Just said in a video interview prepared by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. This is important for schools struggling to pay higher costs to provide higher quality food as mandated by the National School Lunch Program guidelines, which Congress overhauled in 2010 with the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. (Read more about the guidelines HERE.)
According to the study, the new guidelines require children to take a serving of fruit or vegetables with each lunch, which costs, on average, an additional 14 cents per meal. “With over 31.7 million meals being served daily, this adds up to roughly $800 million per year in extra food costs,” the researchers note. This is a lot, especially if that extra food ends up in the trash instead of children’s stomachs, they note.